In the past, my reading phases were often based on place: Russian literature, Japanese literature, memoirs by or about Middle Eastern women. Then, a few years ago, I began reading primarily contemporary literary fiction. Maybe because I was engaging with book lovers on social media, I was hearing more about contemporary books. Maybe it was just where I was in my reading interests.
Over the last six to 12 months, I’ve felt myself drifting back to classics, books I read (and neglected to read) as a student. In 2017, “classic” has become “classical.” As in literature of the ancient world, in particular Greece. Though I welcome suggestions of ancient texts from other cultures. I’m Greek, so I have a personal interest in the culture. But my interest in antiquity is about more than that.
I appreciate the paradoxes of reading the ancient world, the simultaneous feeling of closeness and distance. The emotional truths resonate while the world itself feels other. We know but don’t know about the ancient world. The limits of knowledge and the perspectival nature of perception are heightened in a way that feels important to acknowledge and experience, especially in our time.
Yes, I think I’ll stick with this for a while…
On the #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks front, I somehow managed to meet my 50 percent goal. Six of my nine March reads came from my existing library. Hurrah!
Prometheus Bound and Persians by Aeschylus
Reading scripts can be a weird experience. Even with contemporary plays, I’m aware that I’m only getting a piece of the story. It’s in performance that s a play’s world springs to life. The words on the page are one piece, not the whole. With ancient plays, the challenge can feel intensified. I’m hyper-aware of how much I don’t know—about standards of performance, about historical context, about audience expectations and frames of reference. Plus, it’s a translation, so intricacies of language are lost. I’m trying to carry on reading plays even though I feel ambivalent about it.
I was interested to read Persians because it has been described as an empathetic exercise. The play, which dates to 472 BC, is a lament for the Persians written by a Greek playwright for an Athenian audience, eight years after their victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis under King Xerxes. Ten years before that, in 490 BC, the Greeks emerged victorious at the Battle of Marathon. Aeschylus and his brother fought at Marathon. His brother was killed.
In the play, Xerxes’ mother, Atossa, receives a message that the Persian military has been defeated. She summons Darius (Xerxes’ father and the Persian king during the Battle at Marathon) from the grave to discuss Xerxes’ arrogance. To invade Greece, he built a bridge across the Hellespont, the mile-wide strait that separates Asia from Europe. This must have offended the gods, Atossa and Darius say, and Xerxes needs to atone.
Xerxes’ arrogance is a recurring theme. So is the subtext that the Greeks are awesome for having defeated the mighty Persian military. I can see how these would appeal to the Athenian audience without detracting from the humaneness of portraying Atossa’s grief. These co-exist in the play—glory and defeat, elation and despair, each intensifying the other by counterpoint.
Prometheus Bound interested me because it’s contested whether Aeschylus wrote it. The play takes place after he has been, yes, bound by Zeus. It’s Prometheus’s punishment for having revealed the gods’ secrets to humans, against Zeus’ specific instructions. Several key figures visit Prometheus. They converse about his situation. He shares a prophesy about how he will be freed. Prometheus isn’t exactly remorseful, but he also doesn’t want others to incur the wrath of Zeus by sticking up for him. What stuck out to me reading this is how saucy Prometheus could be, even as he is lashed to a rock having his liver eaten daily. There’s something so human about that.
In Consolation to His Wife by Plutarch
In Introducing the Ancient Greeks (see below), Edith Hall mentions a moving letter Plutarch wrote to his wife upon learning of their daughter’s death. I was happy to find it in an anthology of classical literature I have. It’s as advertised: a letter Plutarch wrote to console his wife upon learning of their two-year-old daughter’s death.
Here is a paragraph that moved me in particular:
“Only, dear wife, let you and me bear our affliction with patience. I know very well and do comprehend what loss we have had; but if I should find you grieve beyond measure, this would trouble me more than the thing itself. For I had my birth neither from a stock nor a stone; and you know it full well, I having been assistant to you in the education of so many children, which we brought up at home under our own care. This daughter was born after four sons, when you were longing to bear a daughter; which made me call her by your own name. Therefore I know she was particularly dear to you. And grief must have a peculiar pungency in a mind tenderly affectionate to children, when you call to mind how naturally witty and innocent she was, void of anger, and not querulous. She was naturally mild, and compassionate to a miracle. And her gratitude and kindness not only gave us delight, but also manifested her generous nature; for she would pray her nurse to give suck, not only to other children, but to her very playthings, as it were courteously inviting them to her table, and making the best cheer for them she could.”
What slays me about this is how vivid the characterization is, how humane, how timeless. The Loeb Classical Library edition of the letter is available online here.
Hall offers a concise sweep of Ancient Greek history, beginning with the Mycenaeans around 1550 BC continuing through 395 AD, when the Oracle at Delphi was shut down. As I understand her discussion, “Greek” was an education, a language, and a belief system that defined and connected a culturally diverse people spread across vast lands. One could be a Greek Phoenician or a Greek Egyptian or a Greek Syrian. She argues that the people we call “ancient Greeks” shared 10 qualities, to varying degrees: “They were seagoing, suspicious of authority, individualistic, and inquiring […] open to new ideas, witty, and competitive. […] They admired excellence in talented people, as well as being wildly articulate and addicted to pleasure.” (These qualities may sound familiar of Greeks today as well. They did to me, anyway. But I suppose I’m biased.)
Each chapter explores these 10 qualities at different periods in Ancient Greek history. Her admiration for the Greeks suffuses her writing. An occasional “I” and exclamation point make it into her writing, which I found curiously moving. Few things are as enjoyable as reading the intelligent insights of someone who has a passion for her topic. I recommend this for anyone interested in an overview of the Ancient Greek world.
Classics: A Very Short Introduction by Mary Beard and John Henderson
We have several of these “Very Short Introduction” books at my house. It’s quite a massive series. I’ve heard mixed reviews, which I do and don’t understand. At about 150 pages, they are, as advertised, very short. Obviously, they can’t be anywhere near comprehensive. For example, Byzantium lasted for approximately 1,100 years. How much can we reasonably expect covered in 150 pages? Long story short, if you’re looking for specifics, these books will likely disappoint. However, if you’re interested in a theoretical framework—prep work for understanding a discipline and the work of that discipline—these make for fascinating reading.
I found Classics helpful given the other books I read in March. The articulated something I’d been thinking about reading ancient texts: the mutability of knowledge of the ancient world, how much conjecture is involved, and how much we can never know. It’s both humbling and thrilling. If you’re interested in studying classics or reading classical literature, this is a handy title to have on hand.
What’s this? Yes, a contemporary novel! I was excited to find my library had it as an audiobook. It’s a time travel novel, so of course it has been on my TBR since its release date. I’m usually ambivalent about listening to fiction. Generally, I prefer to read it for myself. But this novel worked very well for me. It’s read by the author. Maybe that helped?
Tom lives in our time but not our world. In his, humans have unlimited clean energy (something to do with harnessing the power of the earth’s rotation). Time travel tourism is the next big thing, and his brilliant scientist father invented it. But while humanity is in good shape, Tom isn’t. He’s an underachiever with a string of failed romances, a contentious relationship with his father, and few career prospects of his own. During a trip back in time, Tom triggers a series of events that change history for the worse. Which is to say, he ends up in the world we live in. Yes, our reality is his dystopia. But here’s the catch: Tom’s life is far better in the dystopia. He’s a respected architect and falls in reciprocal love with his dream girl. So what should he do? Does he stay in the world where his life is better but the rest of humanity’s isn’t?
The novel has a fresh take on the science of time travel, takes surprising twists and turns, and riffs on time in thought-provoking and satisfying ways.
Book three finds Tiffany continuing with her witch training. One evening, she rashly joins a dance that she really shouldn’t have. Turns out, she danced with Winter, who develops a crush on her. It wants to make her its bride. Winter’s expressions of love include snowstorms with Tiffany-shaped snowflakes, massive icebergs with her face on them, and eternal winter. It’s a problem, and Tiffany has to figure out how to fix it.
It’s Terry Pratchett, so a funny and deeply empathetic novel. Instead of villainizing, Tiffany tries to understand the other’s vulnerability. This is true of Winter and anyone or anything she has to deal with. But this doesn’t mean she excuses or accepts the inexcusable or unacceptable. She’s my hero.
Star in the Storm by Joan Harlow Hiatt (borrowed from my friend Jessica)
Jessica recommended this children’s historical novel set in the early years of the 20th century. I read it straight through on a stormy Sunday afternoon. Which is fitting, as the story features a massive storm. The eponymous Star is a Newfoundland dog living in Newfoundland, Canada. His human is a young girl called Maggie, who is determined to protect him from false accusations and nefarious intentions. But who’s saving who, exactly? Well, you’ll see.
If you love dogs and uplifting stories of overcoming adversity, with happy endings for all, this is lovely book to spend an afternoon with.
Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All (Encyclopedia Brown #5) by Donald J Sobol
I read this one for the Gilmore Girls reading challenge we’re doing at Books, Ink. These mysteries star 10-year-old Encyclopedia Brown, a crime-solving prodigy. Each chapter is a case, and readers have a chance to solve the crime before flipping to the back of the book for the answer.
As you can see from the photo, this book has been in my family for a long time!
Books started/currently reading:
I’ve dipped into and out of so many books this month. I’m going to limit this list to books I’m actively reading. Otherwise, it’s bound to quickly spiral out of control.
An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by John V. Luce
I finished this one on April 1, so it’ll be in this month’s wrap-up. It’s a engaging overview of the main schools of ancient Greek philosophy. It pairs especially well with Edith Hall’s book.
Aethiopian Adventures: Or, the History of Theagenes and Chariclea by Heliodorus of Emesa
This has been on my “currently reading” list for a while, through no fault of the engaging story. Theagenes, a Greek, and Chariclea, an Ethiopian princess, fall in love and have adventures. Lots and lots of crazy, twisty adventures. Here’s my problem: It’s an e-book I can only read on my tablet, and the formatting is highly wonky. I’m debating whether to try powering through or ordering a paper copy. Thoughts?
Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods by Rick Riordan
Riordan’s books are so ridiculous, in the best way possible. They make me laugh out loud often. Ah, how I enjoy the absurd. Not that the Greek gods need help being absurd. We have the entire Percy Jackson and Gods of Olympus series at my house. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting these as an amusing counterpoint to my more weighty reading. “Balance is best in all things” and all that.
Aesop’s Fables, translated by V. S. Vernon Jones
This is one of the books I remember being read to me when I was growing up. I loved it so much. This Word Cloud edition, which I in no way needed, has lovely illustrations and end papers.
Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West
I love these Oxford World Classic covers.
Drosilla and Charikles: A Byzantine Novel by Niketas Eugenianos, translated by Joan B. Burton
A novel written during the Byzantine era! I have several nonfiction books on Byzantium. This will be a nice complement to them.
Homeric Hymns, translated by Jules Cashford
The Complete Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone
There’s a certain irony to a book of fragments being called “the complete” … yes?
I don’t read Ancient Greek. And yet, I had to buy this as an expression of support for Wilson’s labors. It makes me irrationally happy that he took the time and thought to undertake translating a contemporary novel into an ancient language. I’m chalking this up to yet more inspiration to learn Ancient Greek. Click here for a neat discussion on the process by Wilson.
So there we have it: my March reads in, well, not brief, exactly. What are you reading these days?